I had one of those small yet big moments at the hardware store the other day. The story is too long to tell in detail, but the synopsis is this: A week previous I had been in to purchase fencing for the backyard. Due to the cashier’s error, and unknown to me at the time, I underpaid. (He rang me up for the one roll of fencing I brought to the counter, not the 2 rolls I told him I was taking.) Now it was a week later. I was back, and as a new cashier gave me the price, I realized the error.
So there was this moment, just seconds really, where a decision-making process was unfolding internally. My first reaction was to let the whole thing slide. “Their mistake was a few days ago…..they have no idea…….I’m not positive what happened……no harm no foul…..etc. etc.” I was leaning pretty heavily toward not mentioning the error, especially since it now turned out that the fencing I was buying was more than I thought. All this internal processing was happening in the few seconds it took to swipe my card and punch in my PIN. But before I hit the last number, I decided to speak up:
“Dan, I think I know what happened. When I was in here the other day, your cashier charged me for one roll of fencing, not two. If that is the case, I guess I owe you some money.”
Dan smiled and said, “Yep, you owe us another $37. And by the way, thank you for your honesty.”
As I walked out of the hardware store, I felt less proud about doing the right thing than sobered by how long it took me to get there.
The Power of Reflection
Here is what I know about myself. My first instinct is not always my best instinct. In school, teachers often said, “trust your first response.” That may be true in test- taking, but my default position is very often towards self-preservation, and self-interest. Whether that is the so-called ‘lizard brain’ responsible for fight or flight, original sin or what, I have no idea. I just know that frequently my immediate response is not always my best response.
I guess that is why I believe so much in the power of reflection. Whether it is a full day away, or a few seconds at the cash register, I often come closer to the person I want to be after I have been willing to pause. It is almost like in those few seconds (or minutes or hours), I am able to remember who I am, or what I was taught as a child or who I want to be. I find the person who is more than self-preservation, more than self-interest, more than self first. My truer self is in there, but it takes some time to find me.
Speed in work has compensations. Speed gets noticed. Speed is praised by others. Speed is self important. Speed absolves us. Speed means we don’t really belong to any particular thing or person we are visiting and thus appears to elevate us above the ground of our labors. When it becomes all-consuming, speed is the ultimate defense, the antidote to stopping and really looking. If we really saw what we were doing and who we had become, we feel we might not survive the stopping and the accompanying self appraisal. So we don’t stop, and the faster we go, the harder it becomes to stop
David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea, p. 117